Two Utahns who spent childhood in internment camps say history must not repeat

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 3:28 p.m. MDT

Raymond Uno's father died while captive in an internment camp. Uno says being in the camp tore his family apart.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Raymond Uno's father died while captive in an internment camp. Uno says being in the camp tore his family apart. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

This is the first in a two-part series about how Pearl Harbor affected both Utahns and Japanese with Utah ties.

SALT LAKE CITY — In a big glass house overlooking the Utah State Capitol, Ted Nagata, 75, sits in front of his Macintosh and clicks through the scenes of his childhood. Here he is, smiling, with his sister and mother, he says. Here he is with a good friend. Here he is with his schoolmates, behind barbed wire under armed watch.

In the Avenues of Salt Lake City, sandwiched between two $1 million homes, Raymond Uno, 80 — sans photos — recounts a similar story. He was in middle school in California when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, forever changing the course of his life. Within a matter of months he was shipped off to the desert and locked up for the sole crime of being of Japanese-American descent.

Behind Ted Nagata is a picture of himself with his sister, Carole, and father, James, at the Topaz internment camp when he was 6 years old. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Behind Ted Nagata is a picture of himself with his sister, Carole, and father, James, at the Topaz internment camp when he was 6 years old. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Both men, one a retired judge, the other a retired graphic design artist, recall the three plus years they spent in captivity dryly, shedding no tears, speaking as if they were reading out of a history book. "I was a child," Nagata said. "I didn't understand the gravity of what had been done to me," Uno said.

But what they didn't understand as children came back to haunt them as adults. They lost their freedom, their dignity, their inheritance — all things the U.S. Constitution vowed to protect. Their parents, overwhelmed by the burden of it all, tried their best but, for one reason or another, the two youngsters found themselves faced with the task of growing up on their own. Innocence lost, they resolved to do what they could to make sure history did not repeat. Though their lists of accomplishments are long, the now-graying men acknowledge with dismay that, illustrated by the way the country is dealing with immigration and the War on Terror, Americans of different ethnic backgrounds still don't trust each other.

"I feel that I've been a failure because I haven't laid the groundwork for my kids to live in a world that's a world of peace," Uno said. "The question of racism and hate, I guess, is something that every generation must learn themselves."

Ted Nagata was at school when the bomb fell, Dec. 7, 1941, probably struggling, as most 7-year-olds do, to hold still as his teacher explained some concept of arithmetic or another. With wide eyes, he registered the news: Japan — the country of his ancestry — had attacked the United States — the country of his citizenship. And, with no further warning, the little boy's life turned upside down.

"I knew it was a big deal," Nagata recalled, "but I never imagined what was coming."

Strangers on the street looked at him like he was vermin. His Caucasian friends called him names and stopped inviting him to play. After rounding up and incarcerating some 1,500 Japanese-American leaders and shutting down hundreds of Japanese-American-owned businesses, the government required all Japanese Americans to register and carry identification cards. They were not allowed to travel more than 5 miles from their homes and were given an 8 p.m. curfew.

One day, one of Nagata's former playmates took him aside and told him gravely, "Ted, I'm so sorry you have to leave." Nagata was confused. He couldn't imagine why his family would give up the life they'd built for themselves in California. They had a house, a car, a successful business selling sewing machines. But just a few weeks later, via posters tacked to telephone poles, the bad news was confirmed: "Pursuant to the provisions of the Civilian Exclusion Order… all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated."'

President Franklin Roosevelt signed an order in February 1942 giving the military blanket power to deal with the "enemy problem." Shortly thereafter, Gen. John DeWitt announced that there was "no ready means" for determining the loyal Japanese Americans from the disloyal. The Nagata and Uno families, along with some 110,000 others of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, were given seven days to sell or store all their belongings. Houses and cars were sold for 10 cents on the dollar. Farmland that would be worth millions of dollars today was abandoned. They were only allowed to take what they could carry.

"We all wore labels like we were some kind of merchandise," Uno said. "We were treated like criminals but we had committed no crime."

Both boys were soon settled — not so comfortably — inside horse stalls at nearby racetracks. "It was pretty crude and very odorous," Nagata said. Uno recalled, crinkling his nose, that he and his family had to clean out the horse stall themselves before filling bags with straw to lie on.

Six months later, Nagata was on his way to Utah, where he would take up involuntary residence at the Central Utah Relocation Center near Delta. Uno went to a camp in Wyoming. Other Japanese Americans were spread among eight other camps in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado and Idaho.

"It was a dry, desolate wasteland," Uno said. "There was nothing but dust and sagebrush."

In pamphlets distributed at the time, the U.S. government claimed the incarceration of Japanese Americans was "for their own safety," but, even as children, Nagata and Uno noticed the guns were pointed inward. At Topaz, as the Central Utah Relocation Center was dubbed, a man who was hard of hearing was shot and killed after he failed to heed a guard's call to stop.

"Everything was so strange," Nagata said. "As a child, I was rather terrified."

His memories of camp life are simple, innocent. He remembers playing "kick the can" in the sagebrush, long walks to use a community bathroom without any privacy stalls, huddling around a pot-bellied stove to keep warm in a tar-paper barrack with no insulation. His father, like many of the men in camp, was sent away for months at a time to work on a beet farm. His mother was so depressed she stopped doing the laundry, cleaning up the family barrack or caring for her children. He and his sister were left, essentially, to fend for themselves.

In photos, though, the resilient little boy — 10 years old when he was released — is grinning despite it all. "We tried to make the best of a bad situation," Nagata said. The people elected leaders. The children went to school. They put on dances and concerts. But none of that changed the reality of the situation.

"We were in a desert prison," he said. "The government took our possessions, our freedom and 31/2 years of our lives."

Things got worse after the government released them back into a world that still hated them, too. Their property was gone. The government gave them just $25 to start over.

At 15, Uno set out to make a life for himself. His father had died in captivity. He seldom saw his mother, who, though college-educated, was forced to take multiple jobs keeping house and serving food. Nagata's mother never pulled out of the depression that came with the evacuation order. His father, who couldn't find an employer or a landlord who would help out a Japanese-American family for more than a year, placed Nagata and his sisters in an orphanage.

"The camp tore my family apart," Uno said. "None of us ever were the same."

Sixty-nine years later, Uno is numb to the pain of it all. White-haired now, his wrinkled brown skin spotted with age, he says pragmatically, "You can't change the past." His only hope, he said, is to make sure such a thing — a thing he calls the "biggest blemish on the U.S. Constitution this country has ever seen" — never happens again.

Current events, though, leave him and other Japanese Americans feeling dismayed.

A community debate in May about building a Muslim mosque near Ground Zero in New York City went national earlier this year after nearly 1,000 people showed up to protest the project. NPR reporter Juan Williams made national news in October when he followed up an observation that "political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality" with a comment about how he gets "worried" and "nervous" when he sees people on a plane wearing Muslim garb. The Washington Post reported Sunday that many leading national Muslim organizations have suspended contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation because the agency has been secretly monitoring mosques. Former FBI informant Craig Monteilh told the newspaper that he was recruited to spy on the worshipers because, he was told, "Islam is a threat to our national security."

These are not isolated examples.

"History is repeating itself," Nagata said. "They blamed us for the attack on Pearl Harbor just because we are Japanese. We are blaming people from the Middle East for what happened on 9/11 just because they are Muslim."

While most experts agree that a full-out internment scenario is unlikely to happen again, profiling and discrimination as a product of racism and fear are alive and kicking, said Jerry Kang, a professor of law at UCLA.

Psychological studies show that Americans are more likely to trust people who look Caucasian.

"We have prevailing stereotypes about certain types of people not being fully American," Kang said. "When we think American, we think of white, European faces. When we see Asian faces or Middle Eastern faces, we subconsciously associate those people with some level of foreignness."

While our brains are wired to categorize people, Kang said, the information we use to do so is ever changing. Toward the end of the 19th century, for example, Chinese immigrants were stereotyped as "rats" flooding the shores to take American jobs without legal paperwork. Now that stereotype, Kang said, belongs to Hispanics.

"Every generation has its own civil rights battles," Kang said. Today the country deals with many. Figuring out how to fight terrorism without violating the civil rights of Arab Americans is one. Arizona's recently enacted immigration law, which some say encourages racial profiling by authorizing local police officers to raise the question of immigration status, raises another.

Floyd Mori, national executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, said there is an "anti-immigrant sentiment against Hispanics" that closely mirrors Japanese-Americans' experiences. Long before the president allowed the military to lock them up, Japanese Americans were denied citizenship through naturalization.

"The country's memory is very, very short in this regard," said Mori, who grew up in Ogden. "It seems certain minorities in particular times of our history become targets of hate and racism — it's a cycle we can't seem to break."

Kang pointed out the country has made significant advances in civil rights since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Progress, though, he said, has not come without a price.

"Our mistakes, when it comes to racial relations, aren't as grotesque as they once were," Kang said. "But that improvement didn't come easily. People have fought for this."

The Japanese American Citizens League, which Uno and Nagata both headed at one time or another, took it upon itself to right the wrongs done during World War II. In 1976 during a convention in Salt Lake City, the organization resolved to pursue redress for the Japanese-American people who were incarcerated. They didn't give up until Ronald Reagan issued a presidential apology in 1988 and agreed to pay those Japanese Americans who were incarcerated $20,000 each. A large part of the battle: educating the congressmen about what happened. Even 20 years later, many on the East Coast were ignorant to the abuse of the Japanese Americans.

"That was huge," said Uno. "The fact that the government was big enough to admit they made a mistake — it didn't change what happened — but it meant a lot."

Inspired by his experiences, Uno, who would grow up to become the first minority judge in Utah, joined the battle for civil rights in the early 1950s. He lobbied for fair employment and fair housing for minorities. He helped to found Utah's chapter of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and was eventually elected president. He wandered the streets with the local NAACP representative to make sure restaurants and hotels served everyone — regardless of race or religion.

"I never meant to be a civil rights activist," he said. "It's just something that kind of fell on my shoulders."

Nagata, though he wasn't as politically involved, felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, as well.

"It's important to remember what happened so it won't happen again," he said.

Over the years, he's used his talents as a prominent graphic design artist to help preserve history. He designed and edited several books about Topaz. He shared his story with dozens of newspapers.

"I never meant to be the spokesman for the incarcerated Japanese in Utah," he said. "I think I can talk about these things because I was so young. For most people there is too much pain."

All that remains of Topaz now is the foundation of the barracks Nagata lived in. He helped to raise money for and designed three monuments for the site.

The placard, which he wrote, points out that not a single case of espionage was discovered among those Japanese Americans who were incarcerated. "The memory of Topaz remains a tribute to a people whose faith and loyalty was steadfast — while America's had faltered."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com

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